ByÂ Hal Bernton
Seattle Times staff reporter
Just weeks before his battalion of some 700 soldiers departed for Afghanistan in summer 2009, Lt. Col. Burton Shields had a disconcerting visit from an Army investigator.
The agent said several soldiers under Shields’ command at Joint Base Lewis-McChord had admitted to illegal use of steroids. One of the suspected users was a battalion captain.
Shields, who led the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, was skeptical. He questioned whether Army investigators might have mistaken legal dietary supplements for steroids.
But in the days that followed, the captain, as well as a lieutenant, first sergeant and nine other soldiers, admitted using steroids, according to investigative documents that offer a rare look at illegal use of those drugs in the military.
Steroid use in the Army has been on the rise amid a prolonged period of warfare. To prepare for - and perform - on combat tours of duty, some soldiers told investigators they turned to steroids to boost their brawn.
The latest Defense Department survey - conducted in 2008 - found that 2.5 percent of Army personnel had illegally used steroids within the past 12 months, a jump from three years earlier, when 1.5 percent said they had used these drugs illegally.
The percentage of infantry soldiers taking steroids may be higher than for the overall Army.
Several soldiers from the 4/23 Battalion, who confessed to using steroids, estimated that more than half the unit of some 700 soldiers had sampled steroids, according to investigative documents obtained by The Seattle Times under the federal Freedom of Information Act. One soldier had a scheme for continuing steroid use in Afghanistan through the receipt of mail-order packages that would disguise the drugs in lotion packets.
Anabolic steroids can increase muscle mass and strength.
But to achieve these effects, the steroids are typically taken at much higher levels then those prescribed by doctors. These drugs can raise the risk of high blood pressure, heart and liver disease, and side effects can include mood swings, irritability and increased aggression, which can be a volatile attribute for soldiers headed off to battle.
“The use of steroids is a short-term gain for long-term problems that individuals are going to have, and we cannot tolerate them in any way, shape or form,” said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, who has taken a leadership role in Army efforts to reduce drug use among soldiers.
Costly testing limited
Soldiers may be tested for steroids when a commander has probable cause to suspect abuse.
But since 2008, only about 300 soldiers have been tested for steroids, according to Army statistics provided by Chiarelli. In contrast, the Army conducts random testing of more than 450,000 soldiers each year for use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other narcotics.
Army officials say the steroid analysis is too expensive to be included in the random drug testing. The Army cost for a steroid urinalysis ranges from $240 to $365 per sample, which compares with a cost as low as $8 per sample for marijuana, according to Army statistics.
Seattle police tip
At Joint Base Lewis-McChord, steroid use in Shields’ battalion might have gone undetected if not for a tip in June 2009 from the Seattle Police Department. While investigating illegal gambling, a Seattle undercover detective encountered a battalion soldier who talked about steroid use and distribution. The Seattle police tipped off the Army Criminal Investigative Command, which had agents interview soldiers.
In the documents released to The Seattle Times, the names of battalion soldiers who admitted to using steroids were blacked out because none of the soldiers were convicted of any crimes. The soldiers were subject to other disciplinary actions, including an Article 15 punishment slapped on the captain, who was subject to pay forfeiture and up to 30-day confinement to his quarters.
Shields, the battalion commander, declined to be interviewed for this story.
But Maj. Kathleen Turner, a Joint Base Lewis-McChord spokeswoman, said the captain, first lieutenant and first sergeant who used steroids were subject to disciplinary actions and did not deploy to Afghanistan.
Usage an open secret
In the nine years since the 9/11 attacks, Joint Base Lewis-McChord has sent tens of thousands of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Iraq, some soldiers say steroid use was no secret.
“No one really hid this,” said Seth Manzel, an Army veteran who served from 2004-05 in Mosul, Iraq, with the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division. “I walked into a squad leader’s room one time, and he was with another soldier who had his pants down around his ankle. He had a needle and was injecting that soldier.”
Manzel said about a half-dozen soldiers in his 35-man platoon used steroids. His roommate and several other soldiers took steroids purchased from American contractors who worked at the Mosul base, and they injected themselves with needles provided by medics, he said.
Officers, he added, weren’t eager to investigate steroid use.
“If a captain sees his soldiers getting stronger at a quicker rate, that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” said Manzel, who now operates Coffee Strong, a Lakewood, Pierce County, coffee shop, and has been active in the anti-war movement.
Some soldiers report steroid use among Army Rangers, who repeatedly cycle through war zones for months of difficult duty.
One Ranger veteran told The Seattle Times that several members of his unit were “juicing” while in Iraq in 2005, including a squad leader. The Ranger veteran said he also intended to take steroids but forgot his doses back at Lewis-McChord, so he took them upon his return.
“While I was doing them, I doubled in (muscular) size,” the veteran said.
But there were side effects.
He was angry much of the time, quick to snap at his girlfriend, and he found himself on an emotional roller coaster while coming off the steroids. But he sees value in steroids for soldiers heading off to combat.
“There is a broad spectrum of things that could kill you in a war zone. You need to be aggressive and quick. I would do them again in a heartbeat.”
Rush “to get stronger”
In early 2009, the 4/23 Battalion learned that instead of going to Iraq that summer, the soldiers would head to southern Afghanistan to battle the Taliban insurgency.
The battalion was part of an infantry brigade equipped with eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles. But many of the combat missions in the rural south would require long foot patrols through villages, farm fields and hill country, where loads carried by individual soldiers could weigh more than 90 pounds.
To gain muscle and endurance, battalion soldiers worked out with weights and jogged with armor. And some shared tips on steroids such as Decadrol, Anadrol and Winstrol that soldiers said cost from $200 to $500 for an eight-week supply.
“I wanted to get stronger. I knew we were deploying,” one soldier, who used an injectable steroid as he trained for Afghanistan, told investigators. “We had this road march through the woods [during training], and I almost fell out, and they had to take my weapon … I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen over there.”
The steroids were purchased easily from online Internet sites and delivered to off-base houses. One soldier said he then would distribute the drugs at a gathering point in front of a barrack.
After Seattle police tipped them off, Army investigators sought to conduct steroid urinalysis on the entire battalion of some 700 soldiers. That request was rejected by Army legal officials because there was a lack of evidence to justify it, according to investigative documents.
But the Army investigators did conduct more-limited testing, along with interviews of soldiers and officers. Some battalion officers, when interviewed by investigators, expressed surprise at the steroid use.
But another battalion captain admitted to taking steroids twice at his apartment in DuPont. He felt comfortable enough to inject the drug even as a first sergeant in the unit was visiting his home.
“At first I disagreed with him and told him not to mess with it,” the first sergeant told investigators.
Then the first sergeant had a change of heart. Offered steroids by the captain, he injected the drugs during a two-month period.